Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Time and Area Closures: “Magic Bullet” for Sustainable Fisheries Management

Petri Suuronen, Nick Lowry


Dramatic declines of many major groundfish stocks worldwide have prompted critical evaluation of the means by which commercial fisheries are managed. It is apparent that, in many cases, the traditional management measures such as catch quotas and fishing effort controls are inadequate in protecting fish resources. Clearly, improved management practices are needed.

International interest in the use of time and area closures as a tool to protect fish stocks and to promote the sustainable use of marine resources is increasing (e.g., Plan Development Team 1990; Roberts and Polunin 1993; Rowley 1994; Bohnsack 1996; Costanza et al. 1998; Guenette et al. 1998; Murray et al. 1999). Such closures range from permanent designations of areas from which no fish can be taken (no-take and no-impact zones; marine protected areas, sanctuaries, preserves, and refuges) to temporary limitations on taking specific species from spawning grounds or migration routes (closed seasons, spawning closures). A vast amount of terminology in this field is misleading, however. For example, U.S. marine sanctuaries actually have few restrictions on commercial fishing activities within their boundaries. A closed area is a specific, clearly defined area within which a permanent or temporary measure is imposed to restrict fishing activities for one or more species.

Significant benefits have been claimed for area closures. Closures are expected to provide a recruitment source for surrounding areas; increase spawning biomass, catches, and average size of fish caught; protect habitat and overall diversity; provide resilience to overexploitation and insurance against management failures; and accelerate the rate of recovery of overexploited populations (e.g., Shackell and Lien 1995; Guenette et al. 1998; Murray et al. 1999; Sumaila et al. 2000). Given this potential, it is no surprise that conservation organizations and management authorities look to closures as an answer to the pressing problems of overfishing and habitat disturbance.

Most demonstrations of the benefits of area closures have been in reef fisheries (e.g., Rowley 1994; Roberts 1995; Bohnsack 1996; Russ and Alcala 1996). Very little scientific evaluation is available regarding the effectiveness of closed areas for low-topography continental shelves in temperate and boreal waters. It is often taken as self-evident that if the main human activity (fishing) in an area is stopped, then stress on the ecosystem and fish stocks will be reduced. In fact, marine refuges or closed areas have rarely been used as a primary control measure of fishing mortality and overfishing in major marine fisheries.

In this paper, we review, assess, and evaluate the applicability and effectiveness of area closures as a fisheries management tool in temperate and boreal waters.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has examined the benefits of using time and area closures in 52 fisheries (OECD 1997). In 30 cases, stocks declined or had major oscillations; in only 16 cases had stock numbers increased or stayed the same during the periods of closures. However, those 16 fisheries also used limited entry or catch quotas as well as other restrictions, such as size-selective gear. Therefore, it was not clear what contribution the closures made to conservation. The OECD concluded that although time and area closures had not been effective at ensuring good stock conservation in most cases, they may well have contributed to conservation, and stocks might have fared much worse without them.